03/13/2016 11:42AM

Watchmaker: Strange rides in several major stakes

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Melatonin's task in the Santa Handicap was easier when Donworth was not sent to the front.

The following, which has been addressed in this space before, is not jockey bashing. However, when jockeys alter the established running styles of horses, whether in concert with the connections they ride for or on their own, it has repercussions on the game that are far deeper than many might realize.

This is something that horseplayers encounter every single day – unfortunately – and is an endless source of frustration. But there were three examples of this in big stakes races on Saturday, and these examples present a good opportunity to explain to a perhaps more casual fan why this is such a big deal.

Example 1 – Awesome Banner in the Tampa Bay Derby. There isn’t any question that Awesome Banner had the most early speed of any of the nine in the Tampa Bay Derby. In two of his four prior starts, he shaded 45 seconds to the half-mile. But despite breaking right on the button, Awesome Banner was not sent to the lead in the Tampa Bay Derby by jockey Antonio Gallardo.

This strategy had a two-fold effect. For one, because he did not clear a field he easily could have cleared, Awesome Banner was caught four to five wide on the first turn, which eliminated whatever little chance he actually had.

But more importantly, Awesome Banner not going early allowed the Tampa Bay Derby pace to be much more kind that it should have been. That allowed Destin, who won, to lay close to the pace with little expended effort. And it enabled runner-up Outwork to inherit a pretty much uncontested early lead, which almost certainly resulted in him performing better than he might have otherwise.

Think about it. Do you think Outwork would have been beaten only a length if he had to chase Awesome Banner through faster early fractions?

Example 2 – Bolo in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile. In his five previous turf races, Bolo was either on the early lead or pressing the pace from second. The big reason why he ran so well winning last month’s Arcadia off a layoff is because he worked hard early to keep the rapid Obviously’s pace honest. So knowing that, raises your hand if you thought Bolo would be last of six going into the first turn of the Kilroe. No one? That’s what I thought.

Mike Smith, who did not ride Bolo in the Arcadia (Flavien Prat did), had plenty of opportunity in the run to the first turn to give Bolo the same trip he had when he beat Obviously last month. Instead, he took Bolo back, taking a quality pace presence out of the equation. The removal of Bolo’s pace presence pretty much sprung What a View, who went on to post an upset in, get this, front-running fashion.

Example 3 – Donworth in the Santa Anita Handicap. I liked Donworth in the Big Cap and I’ll be the first to admit he did not run well, even accounting for his clipping heels into the far turn.

However, given how well he ran in his comeback in last month’s San Antonio after a pace trip, Donworth was supposed to be the controlling speed Saturday. He was supposed to pull the trip Melatonin got. Short of that, Donworth was supposed to be right with Melatonin early.

Instead, despite having every opportunity to move up between horses early, Mario Gutierrez wrangled Donworth back, effectively conceding his best path to victory. And Donworth clearly resented the strategy. Of course, Melatonin wound up being the controlling speed that Donworth should have been, and he drew off to post a resounding upset.

Here’s the point. When horseplayers can’t rely on horses employing the running styles they have established over time, it means they can’t effectively project how a race will unfold. If bettors can’t rely on a speed duel happening when it absolutely is supposed to happen, chaos will ensue, and reasons for playing this game will evaporate. And as I’ve said before, take the betting out of this game, and it becomes polo.

As the sport is currently structured, the solution really lies in the stewards’ stand. I know some are going to find that unpalatable, but the stewards are the front line when it comes to racing integrity. If a transparent program is put into place that requires connections to explain to stewards why a horse didn’t, for example, show the speed he was expected to show, it might make questionable strategic decisions less commonplace. And that would be only good.

Quick Saturday notes:

◗ The star of the day for me was Tepin. The Hillsborough was basically a maintenance outing to get Tepin to a major Grade 1 spot next month at Keeneland. And on top of that, Tepin encountered a bizarre pace setup when Isabella Sings ran off to an enormous lead that at one point down the backstretch might have reached as much as 20 lengths. But Tepin is a champion, and as champions so often do, they overcome stuff, and Tepin scored nicely.

◗ Given what I wrote up top, some might wonder what I thought of John Velazquez’s strategy on Isabella Sings. I liked it. Isabella Sings is a front-runner, so she at least stuck to her style. Isabella Sings probably had no chance of beating Tepin in a conventionally run race, so Velazquez’s gambit was one worth trying. It almost paid off, and it resulted in Isabella Sings running by far the best race of her career.

 ◗ I’ve been critical of Destin; I still think the field he beat in the Sam F. Davis was woeful. But Destin is definitely better than I thought he was. I just wish his Tampa Bay Derby, from a pace standpoint, was a more truly run race.

◗ There was a lot to like about the San Felipe. Danzing Candy was terrific in victory for his third straight score from four career starts. We don’t know if Danzing Candy can be as effective when he doesn’t control the pace, but he’s good.

◗ I really liked Mor Spirit’s effort in finishing second. I got the strongest sense he received an education and a half out of the trip he got and will be much more formidable for it going forward.

As for Exaggerator, I commented on one of the two Derby Watch videos I do with Jay Privman every week for drf.com that even though Exaggerator is bred to run all day and won the Delta Downs Jackpot around two turns last year, I still thought his one-turn races were of higher quality. Exaggerator might eventually become as good a route horse as he is a one-turn horse. But after his third in the San Felipe, I still think he has distance limitations.